- The decrease in interaction and participation rate with students in a virtual setting has been an issue but when we plan with empathy, it may make a difference.
- Make lessons more interesting or entertaining by adding music in the beginning or during your lesson, turning students into active participants by giving them a role, providing breaks or sending students to a breakout room, and inserting some element of fun.
One of the biggest complaints that I’ve heard this year from fellow teachers about distance learning is the lack of interaction and participation from their students in the virtual setting. It’s not exactly fun teaching to a screen full of avatars or profile pictures because your students don’t want to turn their cameras on. It’s even worse when you think you’re just talking to an empty void because you feel that nobody is listening or answering your questions.
The same discussion leads to the debate whether we should require students to turn on their cameras during class and whether we should penalize students who aren’t participating. These debates make me reminiscent of the days when we argued whether we should assign detention to students who fail to complete their homework. Just like with homework, we can’t control what goes on at home. Even though the threat of punishment may motivate some to change their ways, we ultimately know that motivating through fear never gets us the results we envision. At most, it gives us a classroom full of complacency.
Teaching with empathy: Are YOU always fully engaged?
Instead of focusing on changing our students to get our desired results, we need to focus on what we can do differently. Think about the virtual staff meetings that we’ve had during the pandemic. Do we always have our camera on during the meeting? Are we always fully engaged? Have we ever been distracted at all? Do we have any other tabs open when we’re supposed to be watching the speaker? Are we playing on our cellphone when we should be paying attention to our computer? Are we talking to our child or spouse when we’re supposed to be listening to the presentation? If we are having trouble paying attention to a 30-minute meeting, imagine a child doing this for the entire school day.
Teaching with empathy: Make lessons more interesting.
So how do we increase participation in our virtual classroom? Well, there is not a perfect solution but what I have tried to do is simply plan with empathy and make my class as entertaining as possible. Even though we are educators, we were not hired to be entertainers. We have to understand that we are up against a greater number of distractions compared to previous years in the classroom. If we don’t attempt to make our class somewhat interesting, then we are up against a losing battle. If it’s between another boring history lesson and the PlayStation or cellphone, our students are probably going to choose the latter.
Teaching with empathy: Add music.
Although we might not be great entertainers, there are things we can do to make our class more exciting. My class always begins with an upbeat song. Music can do wonders and nothing does a better job to set the mood than a great song. I always remember my administrators playing fun music to lighten up the environment whenever we began the first day of summer professional development.
Let’s face it, even though it’s nice to get back to work, that first day back can be rough. Listening to upbeat music was a lot better than sitting in a quiet room waiting for the meeting to start. The same goes for your students as they are waiting for your class to begin. You can easily add music to your meeting by finding your desired song on YouTube and adding it to a slide that you are presenting in your meeting.
Teaching with empathy: Give students a role.
After you have chosen your song, I would suggest providing some responsibilities for your students to have in class. This provides an opportunity for your students to be active participants as opposed to passive participants. Think about the staff meetings that we attend. Do we look forward to our principal talking to us for 30-minutes or do we look forward to the meetings in which we get to make contributions?
In my class, students monitor the chat box for questions, choose a skill or behavior to focus on, and then rate our class on it at the end of class, greet students as they enter the meet while I’m setting up the class, facilitate good news, lead break out rooms, create a FlipGrid video after class summarizing what was covered for any students who missed that session, and many other roles. (If you’re looking for ideas on providing classroom responsibilities, I would suggest reading “Learn Like a Pirate” by Paul Solarz.) Believe it or not, your students want to contribute. By providing these leadership opportunities, your students will look forward to your class instead of dreading it. They would rather be a part of the class as opposed to just sitting in front of the screen for an hour.
Teaching with empathy: Provide breaks.
So, you’ve started with the song and you give the students some responsibilities. But you still find your class dragging on…so what do you do now? Have you thought about providing breaks for independent learning? One thing that I’ve noticed is that some of us have abandoned our best practices because we’re teaching virtually. When we’re in a normal setting, many would never choose to teach or lecture for an hour straight, but that’s what some are doing now. If most activities are only supposed to be 15-20 minutes long in the class, then why do we find it acceptable to do this virtually?
There is nothing wrong with telling your students to log off your class, read or complete an activity for 10 minutes, and then come back when that time is up. I found that many students actually appreciate it. This time allows them to take a little break, complete the assignment, and re-focus. Remember that for many of us, our class isn’t the only class they are attending. They are online all day long, and in some cases, are on longer than we are on because we get a prep period.
During this time, I like to keep a few students in the meeting. We create a few individual or small group break out rooms that I assign to students who I want to talk to about their progress. Or we use this time to re-teach some concepts that I noticed they scored poorly on their formative assessment. Therefore, I’m able to provide that individualized and small group instruction that we strive for. It also gives a much-needed break for most of my class.[scroll down to keep reading]
Teaching with empathy: Schedule something fun.
My last suggestion is to schedule something fun for at least 5 minutes each day. By now every student has probably played some type of Kahoot! almost every single day during the pandemic, so try something other than a quiz game. Come up with some activities that you and your students would enjoy. This could be something simple as doing a daily ice breaker or telling a “joke of the day.” If all else fails and your students are still bored, at least they will have a few moments to look forward to each class period.
Engage students and plan with empathy.
If you noticed, not every suggestion I gave was based on academics. It was not focused on learning the material. However, if you do not attempt to engage students and plan with empathy, you may find that your students aren’t learning at all. I would rather spend 10 minutes out of each class period building engagement and culture rather than worry if my students are listening at all. If you focus on making your class more fun and entertaining, you will find that those cameras will start to turn on, those “hand raised” symbols will start appearing, the chatbox will be used for its intended purposes, and you’re not just talking to a blank screen.
About Mark Ureel
Mark is a Middle School Social Studies at Hillside Middle School in Northville, Michigan. He is currently in his 17th year of teaching and has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. In 2017, Mark was awarded the Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Some of Mark’s passions in teaching are project-based learning and exploring more efficient and innovative teaching methods. Mark is an avid fan of the Detroit Lions and hopes that one year they will play in the Super Bowl before he dies.